Film Review: Octogenarian Documentarian Wiseman is in Top Form with Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Every year, documentarian Frederick Wiseman puts out another epic-length film (usually running around three hours or more), and every year I become fascinated with whatever his subject matter is and am desperate to know more about the lives of the people working and existing in whatever the setting might be. Of late, Wiseman has been concentrating on self-contained communities in places like boxing gyms, dance studios, art galleries, institutions of learning, and even a cabaret-style strip club.

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Image courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center

With his latest, Ex Libris, the filmmaker tackles all that goes on inside the walls of the New York Public Library location on Fifth Avenue, as well as several of its 92 branches. I actually have friends who are library geeks, and this film might make their heads explode, seeing the inner workings of an institution this vast where so many ideas are both on display and discussed in countless forums throughout the facility. In one of Wiseman’s finest modern works, we are reminded of the democratic nature of libraries, and how all religions, political ideas, races and classes are represented on equal footing within.

Representing the perfect blend of a system that is funded both by public and private monies, the New York Public Library buildings are places where people go to read, study, use free computers or free internet, attend lectures, research, learn (groups of young school children are ever present in the film). But it’s also a type of business, and Wiseman takes us into operations meetings, budget discussions and board of directors gatherings. As a result, we get an intriguing look at all that goes into every special exhibit, formal reception or fundraising banquet and speaker series. One of the most tense discussions revolves around the topic of what to do about the library’s “homeless patrons,” a recurring subject at these meetings, I’m guessing.

Ex Libris is one of the few Wiseman films to feature famous faces, as we watch book-tour appearances by the likes of musicians Patti Smith and Elvis Costello and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others. We peak behind the making of an audio book; find out the precise manner by which books from other branches are shipped back to their original library; watch operators take phone calls from patrons seeking information—all of which makes the case for the library being the anchor point for a community and digital inclusion.

In quieter moments, Wiseman peers over the shoulders of those deep in their books, newspaper clippings, note-taking. We peek into whatever seemingly random item or subject they are immersed in. It’s a stunning look into the worlds and brains of strangers, and while it may feel like voyeurism, this filmmaker practically redefined the word, and he makes it come across as something like a tribute to free thought. If you have the time and even a passing interest in the world of libraries and community, you should consider this required viewing.

The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.